From Breasts to Boobs and Back Again

There are too many issues related to the recent Time Magazine cover for me to address them all. Is the photo incendiary? Yes. Did the boy have a choice about whether to be in the photo? Probably, but I doubt he understood it. Do kids really stand on chairs to nurse? Who cares, but I kind of hope so, because it’s hilarious. Are you a bad mother if you don’t breast feed your child? No. Is attachment parenting better than other kinds of parenting? No, it’s just different. Will I buy Time Magazine? No, I will steal it. Do I enjoy breasts? Yes. Do I like heavy metal music? You bet. Does that have anything to do with anything? No it does not.

I was breastfed as a baby. Honestly, I feel squirmy even typing “breast.”  Twelve years after I stopped nursing, breasts became boobs, and then in high school they became tits (and a plethora of other names), and now, as a husband and father, they’re back to breasts. I’ve come full circle. I see them as a means of nourishing children, and as sexual objects. I’m not sure how I feel about that. The fact that I sexualize the one piece of female anatomy from which I once fed, makes me feel grotesquely simple.  I think that feeling is at the heart of why people are uncomfortable with the recent image on the cover of Time Magazine.

There are plenty of reasons people have strong knee-jerk reactions to seeing a 3 or 4-year-old boy sucking on his mother’s breast, the most prominent of them is a general feeling that it’s “wrong” or “weird.” When you ask someone what they mean by that, their most common answer is, “Well, it just doesn’t seem right.”

Think about how you might feel if, instead of a boy, the cover showed that same mother breast feeding a 3-year-old girl standing on a chair. It’s different, isn’t it? The sensationalization of the photo isn’t only based in its ridiculous composition, but also on the gender of the child. If you haven’t already, consider the possibility that one of the reasons people find the idea so unsettling is because a boy of that age sucking on his mother’s breast looks and feels sexual.

I understand that we don’t often see pictures of “big kids” nursing.  I even do a joke in my stand-up that children should stop breast feeding when they start wearing shoes and jeans. Watching my child nurse while in his halloween costume was surreal. My wife feeding what appeared to be a limp Bob the Builder puppet was funny, sweet, and yes a little weird, but not gross or wrong. And it certainly wasn’t even remotely sexual. We aren’t really sexual beings until after puberty (don’t get all Freud on me here). And no, I’m not saying that kids should be allowed to nurse until they sprout an underarm hair. I’m simply pointing out that if you feel the photograph is vaguely sexual — and I think many do, whether they’re willing to admit it or not — you’re dead wrong. If you extract the misguided sense that the kid is old enough to enjoy a breast as if it were a boob, suddenly all those unexplainable feelings about it being wrong or gross, float out into the ether where they belong.

Any age we might come up with as a cutoff for breast feeding is completely arbitrary. Should a kid drive a Camaro to his mom’s house to nurse? Of course not. But should a child be weaned merely because it can walk, talk, eat solids, or change the wallpaper on your iPhone? The gut reaction is yes, but why? Is it because, as a culture, we associate sexual maturity with appearance? If the boy in the photo had been naked except for a diaper, would it have generated the same reaction? How about a tuxedo? Boxers and a wife beater? How about if he was wearing a top hat and a monocle? A fake beard? Holding a gun? Smoking a cigar? What if he was naked and had an erection? The last one is harder to read than the others, isn’t it? That’s odd, given it’s the only one of them that’s natural (and no, erections aren’t always sexual).

Let’s remember that the child is 3. Don’t forget how litte 3 year olds are. It’s why the photographer had him stand on a chair. Otherwise, he’d be sucking his mother’s knee. And that, of course, would be funny and silly, and totally ok, because the knee isn’t something that becomes a sexual object later in the boy’s life. But but but, maybe if he sucks on his mom’s knee, he’ll develop some kinky attraction to knees, and one of his girlfriends might publish a story in Cosmo called “The Knee Sucker.” oh my God, the horror.

It’s puritanical, and all based on highly subjective feelings. There are simply no facts (that I’m aware of) that show nursing after a certain age is bad for a kid.  Since it’s such a personal thing, maybe we should just leave it up to the mother and child to decide what’s best. Women are already fighting enough battles over what they’re allowed to do with their bodies. Let’s not add another one.

I'm a contributing writer to Parents Magazine, GQ, Psychology Today and some others. My book, "This is Ridiculous. This is Amazing: Parenthood in 71 Lists" is available here Look for two more books in 2015: "Must. Push. Buttons (Bloomsbury Kids), and an as-of-yet untitled memoir I’ve appeared on Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” and “Nick Mom’s Night Out." I live in New Jersey with my wife and two sons and enjoy making them laugh more than anyone else.

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